The Obama administration’s heart may have been in the right place Wednesday in telling school administrators to use law enforcement action, suspensions and expulsions as a last resort in student discipline.
Figures cited by Education Department and Justice Department officials are alarming. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, focusing on what he said are trends in school discipline, wrote in a letter to school leaders:
• African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
• A Texas study of nearly 1 million students found that nearly six in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled at least once over a six-year period during their seventh-to-12th-grade years; 15 percent of those students were disciplined 11 or more separate times.
• One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.
But the department’s recommendations for how to fix these problems were lofty, full of air but short on practical how-to. The guiding principles:
• “Schools that foster positive school climates can help to engage all students in learning by preventing problem behaviors and intervening effectively to support struggling and at-risk students.”
• “Schools that have discipline policies or codes of conduct with clear, appropriate and consistently applied expectations and consequences will help students improve behavior, increase engagement and boost achievement.”
• “Schools that build staff capacity and continuously evaluate the school’s discipline policies and practices are more likely to ensure fairness and equity and promote achievement for all students.”
Really? Build staffing? Don’t forget training. All it takes is money.
Catherine Lhamon, an assistant secretary of education, pointed out that information sent to schools included guidance on compliance with civil rights laws “and the legal approach the [federal government] will take when investigating complaints or compliance reviews alleging race or national origin discrimination in a school or district’s discipline practices.”
In other words, fix this or else.